Scenario #1: The usual.
Martha has a pattern for a nice sweater. She got the exact yarn that was used in the pattern, the right size of needles, and all other materials. She is set to knit. It is going to be her favorite sweater. Martha is very excited and cannot wait to start. She thinks: “What size do I choose from this pattern? I think it has to be M (medium) since I always buy clothes of that size at the store.” The pattern tells her to cast on a certain number of stitches and follow step-by-step instructions. We do not see Martha for some time. Next time we see her we are very concerned. She looks upset. She tells us that she chose the wrong pattern. She says: “ It is a bad pattern. I followed the instructions and my sweater came out too small around and too short. I wasted the time, the yarn, and I have no sweater.”
Any thoughts on what went wrong?
Scenario # 2. Somewhat frequent
Martha has a beautiful yarn in her stash. She wants to use it for a sweater pattern she just bought. Martha told her friend (an advanced knitter): “I do not think it is a big difference in the yarn. I will be fine. It looks the same to me. I am going to start it tonight. I have the needles that pattern calls for.”
What do you think her friend said to her?
Scenario #3. Periodic
Martha learned the hard way that she has to start her project with a gauge swatch. She confesses: “I always skipped that part in the introduction of a pattern. This is the first time I knitted my swatch. The gauge in the pattern is 5 sts = 1 in and I am very happy to report that mine is VERY close. It is 4.5 sts = 1 in. I got it the first time. Yay! I am all set.”
Is Martha going to have a well-fitted sweater?
Scenario #1: She did not knit a gauge swatch and she did not measure herself or a well-fitted sweater.
Scenario #2: You have to knit a gauge swatch. Even different colors of the same yarn can give you a different gauge on the same needles.
Scenario #3: No, she did not get her gauge. If she did a little math…
Let’s do it for her.
Her gauge is 4.5 sts = 1 in
Patt gauge is 5.0 sts = 1 in
Sweater measures 40 in at the hip
With her gauge: 40 in x 4.5 sts per in = 180 sts needed for CO
With the patt gauge: 40 in x 5 sts per in = 200 sts needed for CO (that is the number she sees in the instructions)
The difference is: 200 sts – 180 sts = 20 sts around the hip area.
In inches it will be (with her gauge) 20 sts / 4.5 sts = 4.44 in (that how much she is adding to the circumference of hips).
My opinion: She is NOT going to be happy with this sweater.
Solution: Martha needs to make another swatch with needles of the next size down. Hopefully this will bring her to the right gauge.
Is this convincing enough? There are many more scenarios that lead to the same conclusion: If we want not to waste our precious time, beautiful yarn, and be very happy and satisfied with the result, WE MUST KNIT A GAUGE SWATCH.
- The number of sts (often with decimals) packed into one inch or cm is called the "knitting gauge". It shows the density of obtained fabric. A fingering weight yarn packs more sts in one inch than worsted, bulky, or chunky weight can. In other words, the more stitches you have that make 1 inch length, the thinner your yarn is.
- The yarn label gives you suggested gauge and needle size.
- The yarn label gives you gauge after blocking.
- The dye changes the gauge. Even the same color of the same brand, but different dye lot can produce different gauge.
- The gauge is effected by the way we hold needles, by the knitting method we use (I have different gauges when I knit using Continental or English methods), by stress level (Do not continue knitting an important big project when your stress level is suddenly very high. You will see the difference. You can start a new project instead.), and many other factors.
- A designer uses her/his gauge to write the pattern. You are responsible for getting as close as you can to that stitch and row gauge. Only then you can be sure that your finished product will look like you see it on the model.
Do The Right Thing
- Take your time. Make a good-size swatch. I recommend the size of not less than 6x6 inches. It pays off.
- Use the yarn intended for the project.
- Start with suggested needles.
- Knit the swatch for the main stitch pattern (not always Stockinette Stitch) using appropriate needle size.
- If there are a few stitch patterns in the main body, make a swatch for each.
- Follow (if you wish) this example.
- Study the stitch pattern. You can choose any pattern you wish instead. My pattern has a multiple of 8 sts. I wanted to see at least 5 repeats, so I can comprehend the look of a garment.
- Cast on enough sts for 5 repeats plus 4 or 5 sts for a border. I have 48 sts.
- Begin with a few rows of Garter stitch for stability of fabric.
- Follow with the main pattern for about 4 or 5 rows. Keep 4 or 5 sts on each side in Garter stitch.
- Take a tapestry needle with some contrasting thread or yarn (the length is about a yard).
- Next right side row: with that thread mark about 10th st from the right edge (stitches at the very edge can be distorted), mark every 5th st after that until you have about 10 sts left. Leave enough thread on the first and the last marked stitches to go up and across the last row. The thread is going to hang for now.
- Knit 10 rows following the set pattern.
- Mark the first and the last stitches only.
- Repeat last two steps 2-4 times.
- Mark across the last row every 5th stitch as you did on the first marked row. You will form a rectangle. Pull marking thread a little, so it is straight, but not disturbing the fabric.
In my swatch I marked 30 sts and 30 rows.
- Continue for a few rows in pattern and finish with 4-5 rows of Garter stitch. Bind off.
- Block the swatch. “The rule of a Thumb”: treat this swatch in exact way you are going to treat your finished garment. I used steam to block it. I am very careful with stitches in the middle. I never touch them even with the professional steamer plastic head. I can touch the edges to make them flat. I do flatten the middle with my hand lightly.
- Let the swatch rest and cool. Leave it be for a few hours.
- Measure a few times across .
and a few times vertically. Usually there is a little difference in measurements.
Write them down and take an average for each direction.
- Divide the number of stitches by number of inches (decimals included to two places) and number of rows by number of inches (decimals included to two places). In my swatch I had : 30 sts = 5 in (no decimals, my luck). My stitch gauge is 30/5=6 sts in one inch 30 rows = 4.19 inch (3/16 of an inch =0.19). My row gauge is 30/4.19 = 7.4 rows If I followed the pattern that said 4.5 sts = 1 in, I will change the needle size to the next up to pack less sts in one inch. The row gauge is harder to manage. If I got the exact stitch gauge and my row gauge is a little off, I will more likely rely on my measuring tape to get me where I am. I am sure in this case the difference is minimal.
I hope this helps you to overcome that negative feeling about making the swatch. In fact, I hope that you will love making it from now on. Think about it. It gives you the confidence that you are not going to end up with a different size of your garment and you can check if the yarn and the pattern look to your liking. There is another benefit in case of a difficult stitch pattern- you are learning it as you are working on the gauge.
If you want to read more about the gauge swatch, there are many different articles on this topic. There are two that I see on Knitty.com
1. By Jenna Wilson.
2. By Marilyn A Roberts.